Across the Fourth of July by Bicycle A Letter from the Northern Central Railroad Trail

July 11, 1993|By BENT LORENTZEN

A few miles north of Baltimore, along a cold, rushing river andbeneath mist-shrouded trees, meanders the Northern Central Railroad Trail. Here, on this historic strip of state forest, thousands of Baltimoreans escaped the sweltering heat and crowds of the city to enjoy their Independence Day.

I spent the day on this exceptionally smooth 20-mile trail to the Mason-Dixon Line and asking the people who live and travel along it what the Fourth meant for them.

Beneath a vivid full moon I wait in Ashland (a few miles north of Towson) for dawn to break. Mist from the nearby Loch Raven Reservoir creates a breathtaking surreal landscape as song birds set the still air into an evocative wilderness symphony. Thus I began my ride to Pennsylvania.

Just north of Paper Mill Road an elderly couple walk hand-in-hand beneath the dark, green canopy of oak and elm, as they probably have for years.

As I pedal slowly, luxuriating in a pregnant serenity, a white-tail buck suddenly explodes across the wide trail toward the reservoir. He stops on a ridge to investigate my frantic efforts to photograph him, then dissolves into the forest.

It is curious to know that though the swelling of human development impacts heavily on the nearby environment, the trail is completely insulated from this reality.

You can feel the history here, from the Native Americans who walked and traded along the river for thousands of years, to the celebrated era when militia marched along here in its successful campaign to gain independence, to the two train rides Abraham Lincoln took: to Gettysburg to deliver his famous address and his final one to Illinois, following his assassination.

And now again, the trail has reverted nearly to the character of its Native American heyday. Of course, back then there wasn't an abundance of toilet facilities and picnic tables.

Shafts of sunlight have begun to pierce the green canopy through the mist, foreshadowing a hot, humid day. Passing Glencoe, once a resort village for Baltimore's affluent (circa 1880), the ivy-shrouded rocks tell the hard story of the railroad's builders.

The forest forms a living tunnel, and out of a misty circle of light far away, a lone figure approaches. But what is more startling is the view from the bridge to the farm below. Several dozen cars are neatly parked on a freshly mowed field.

"It started as a wedding party," says the figure, Richard Hyatt, "and has evolved into an annual gig. They call it 'Kool- Aid.' I came last night with a friend from D.C. and partied all night long. . . . We all brought along some food for the homeless. Part of the admission fee, I guess, goes to the homeless too. I guess that's how the Fourth and this park relates to me."

So off I pedal along lonely roads to investigate. Sure enough, an easily-missed, hand drawn, "Kool-Aid" sign points the way down a sinewing dirt road, at the end of which an ancient stone house, barn and several hundred people sleeping in a tent village or out in the open around a smoldering campfire have begun to awaken.

It reminds me of the "happenings" from the '60s and early '70s, except here there is an aura of sure-footed sensibility, not unbridled energy.

Traveling north again, safely on the white ribbon of the trail, I enter Monkton. A small terrier mix waddles out of the woods and becomes part of the foreground for my photo of the Monkton train station, now the park headquarters and museum.

As the dog trots away and I change lenses, sudden movement catches my peripheral vision. Sgt. Dave Davis, chief park ranger, explodes out of nowhere. The little dog I had just photographed lies motionless on Monkton Road, bumped by a passing station wagon.

With thick but tender hands, the ranger gently scoops up the inert dog into his truck to take it to a veterinarian. When the dog's mistress, a local resident, comes on the scene, her presence apparently snaps Annie, her dog, out of shock. Annie was doing OK at the vet's, I was told.

"That's the Fourth to me," says the ranger later while arranging several flags along his station. "I've had to dispatch deer who've been hit by cars, and it's sad, so to be able to help an animal into recovery makes my day. Come on by later. . . . We'll be having watermelon. And there's a nature walk at eleven." The radio squawks, and he takes off.

The trail is filling with the sound with cyclists clicking through the gears. A two-family group descends on the station, some with training wheels, some with high-tech aluminum ones.

James Sands, father of three, says, "Coming here for the Fourth was a convenient thing to do for the whole family without argument." His younger daughter shuffles uncomfortably. "Well," he admits, "almost everyone."

By now, I've left the Gunpowder River and am following the smaller Little Falls River, which empties into the Gunpowder behind a stand of sycamores.

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